Wish Book readers change lives, one story at a time

This season’s Wish Book readers also volunteered cash, cars, furniture and, in one case, kidneys. Donations are still being accepted through February.

01/05/2013 6:26 PM

01/05/2013 6:30 PM

When Zelanda Larragoity was nominated for The Miami Herald’s Wish Book, the request seemed simple enough: gas cards and food so she could care for her 76-year-old father who has been diagnosed with dementia. Her mother died three years ago from lung cancer.

Larragoity, 46, hasn’t been able to work since 2010 when doctors discovered that her kidneys were not working. Three days a week she is hooked to a machine that cleans her blood of toxins — an exhausting experience. Her disability check and father’s Social Security income must cover the mortgage, medicines, food and utilities.

When she told Miami Herald reporter Carli Teproff that what she really wanted was to resume working in a bank so she could care for her father without aid, the bigger story emerged: What Larragoity really needed was a healthy, new kidney.

But who offers to donate a kidney to a stranger after reading a story in a newspaper?

Apparently, at least three people did.

Jackson Memorial Hospital, where Larragoity has been on a waiting list since July 2011, is screening the candidates to determine if there is a suitable match before surgery can be considered.

“The intention and the goodwill is beyond whether there is a match or not,” Larragoity said Friday. “If it doesn’t fit me maybe it could fit someone else. I won just knowing that people care like that.”

That story, and others, are potent reminders of the good that is out there. Last year, readers of Wish Book, which has run in The Herald for 31 years, surprised organizers by offering three jobs to needy people. That was a first, said Wish Book coordinator Roberta DiPietro.

So were the offers for kidney donations.

“We have to see if they are a match, but the fact people called in to donate kidneys is remarkable,” DiPietro said. “The generosity has been overwhelming, [amid] the elections and the Connecticut tragedies. That our readers are still touched by our local stories is heartwarming. And we still have time.”

Donations to Wish Book can be made through February.

Another story that has captured readers’ hearts involves Layla Paul, a toddler born with a heart defect. When Wish Book featured her story in December she and her family were awaiting a life-saving heart transplant at Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital in Hollywood.

On Dec. 21, after exactly six months on a waiting list, Layla received what her mother calls her “miracle heart.”

“Heading into the holidays, it was a Godsend,” said Kevin Paul, Layla’s father, a Marine stationed in Tampa who visits his family in the hospital every weekend. “Perfect timing.”

Since Layla received her transplant, Paul said there has been an outpouring of support on a Facebook page created by Layla’s mother, Amena Khan.

“When the news of her heart got out, her Facebook page exploded,” he said. “When it first started she had 1,200 followers. Now she’s over 4,000. People are pouring in support and prayers.”

Layla has had some complications and is still in the hospital. But her family is keeping its hopes up.

“Home is calling us!” Khan wrote Wednesday.

And so are readers. Wish Book is currently working with about 650 families. Since Thanksgiving, about $252,000 in cash has been donated, along with in-kind donations such as cars, furniture, orthodontics for two individuals, home modifications and specialized equipment.

“One of the neat things is people have donated services,” DiPietro said, noting that the numbers are down about 10 percent from last year’s record pace at this time — a dip she attributes to the tragic shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut last month, which galvanized the nation’s attention.

Yet bright spots abound with this year’s series.

Take Moise Brutus.

The good-natured 22-year-old was left a triple-amputee after surviving a 2010 motorcycle accident that took his lower legs and left hand. The Miramar officers who helped rescue him after the crash on the Turnpike bonded with the resilient, positive young man. The Miramar Police Department nominated Brutus for Wish Book.

Brutus’s goal is to compete in cycling at the 2016 Summer Paralympics in Brazil. He bikes up to 30 miles six days a week, while attending Miami Dade College on weekdays to pursue a degree in chemistry.

“He’s really shown everyone that no matter what disabilities you may have, you need to continue to strive forward and not let anything get in your way,” said Tania Rues, spokeswoman for the Miramar Police Department.

After reading his story, an anonymous donor bought Brutus a new silver Suzuki Kizashi car and had it outfitted with controls Brutus can operate with his artificial limbs. To help him continue his training, Mack Cycle in South Miami donated a new bicycle and heart monitor.

“This has been a true blessing,” Rues said. “What their donation did for him was not just helping him out one day, but helping him out every day of his life. We all take for granted what a vehicle provides for us but, for him, it’s not only necessary for school but to continue with his training and reach his goals to participate in the Paralympics. This has been life-altering for him. Moise is so appreciative of what everyone has done for him.”

Miami Herald staff writers David Smiley and Carli Teproff contributed to this story. Follow @HowardCohen on Twitter.

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